Sunday, May 25, 2008

Exquisite Love: The Taj Mahal

Few words are necessary to introduce the Taj Mahal, the world's most famous monument to love.

I grew up in what I am firmly convinced is the most beautiful city in the world: Rome. I was used to seeing the majestic remnants of what once was the center of one of the most powerful empires ever existed, as a matter of daily life. So, no surprise if I have always thought that nothing could impress me.

However, the first time I saw the Taj Mahal I just stared at it, speechless and with tears in my eyes. I had never seen so much beauty in a building.

The Taj Mahal widely recognized and the finest example of Mughal art. It is dedicated to Arjumand Bano Begum also known as Mumtaz Mahal, wife of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan who was so in love with her that when she died of childbirth in 1631, he wanted to build something of such a beauty that would last for ever.
In 1983, UNESCO included the Taj Mahal along with the nearby Agra Fort in its list of World Heritage Sites.

In 1633, two years after Mumtaz Mahal 's death, work started on what was going to be the ultimate monument to eternal love. More than 20,000 people worked for 17 years to build the Taj Mahal.

Shah Jahan summoned the best architects and artisans of his time from as far away as Baghdad and Persia to erect a temple to love that would enchant hundreds of thousands of people for centuries to come.

The building is not as impressive for its size as it is for its exquisite architecture and perfect symmetry. The central body is a topped by a 35-meter high dome surrounded by four similar smaller domes. At the four corners of the plinth stand minarets. The minarets are slightly tilted outward so that if anything happened they would fall away from the main building. The four minarets have a purely ornamental function and are not used for religious purposes.

The whole construction is covered in white marble that it is less porous than that used in statues and it is less susceptible to corrosion and pollution. The fact that there are no factories in a radius of 50 kilometers and regular restoration works contribute to preserving the monument.

The whole edifice is inlaid in pietra dura of different colors. The same carving techniques are still used today by the descendants of the artisans that built the Taj Mahal for repair works. Their modern artifacts can be (unfortunately) seen in the many shops for tourists where your guide, rickshaw driver, bicycle wallah or taxi driver will take you whether you want or not.

For a more detailed description of the Taj Mahal and its history, click here.

If you are in Delhi, you can either opt for a day tour by bus (most hotels will be able to help you) or you can take the train. The Taj Express leaves early in the morning from Nizamuddin Station and the return train leaves Agra Cantonment Station in the late afternoon. It takes about two and a half hours each way. You'd be surprised at how efficient the Indian railway system is.
Once in Agra the best way to get to the Taj Mahal is to take an auto rickshaw. Ask the driver to go from the side access. It's a 10-15 minute drive form central Agra that will take you through a maze of small alleys and reveal an aspect of India that most of us do not want to think about.

Whatever you do in India, never pay the price you are asked (except entrance fees to monuments). Bargaining is part of the culture. Just do not overdo it. Remember that 10 rupees (25 US cents) are nothing to us, but are a meal to them.

The driver will invariably tell you he knows a place where you can get silk, fabrics, carpets, jewels or anything else you may be looking for at a very low price. Usually they take you to a shop that pays them a commission, which ultimately you pay. And if something seems too good to be true… well you know…

At times, especially during peak tourist season, long lines form at the entrance of the Taj Mahal and other monuments. Someone is likely to approach you telling you they can get you in from a side entrance or help you skip the line. Again, common sense should prevail and if there really is another entrance don't you think people would be lining up there as well?

Once inside the chances of a guide approaching you to offer his/her services are very high. It's up to you. Some are good while some others just read from a guidebook.